Ganesh idols, bottles of milk, plastic sheets and water, information about planets on charts, needles, matchboxes and plenty of stories to debunk popular superstitions and myths – these form part of Mohana Somasundaram's tool kit that she carries around every day.
The 67-year-old retired school teacher, who regularly travels to villages in various parts of the State, is on a mission to counter superstition and spread awareness of astronomy and science.
These days, she is in Palani demonstrating how a plastic sheet of different colours, when dipped in water for a long time, lets go off the shades. “I tell them when Ganesha drinks water, Gandhi would too. For that matter, any stone would. It becomes very easy to earn their trust when you show them this."
Mohana says the fact that many people depend on astrologers only makes her work difficult. “Many villagers don’t even have toilets in their houses because astrologers ask them not to dig pits. The women are the worst sufferers in those cases,” she says. Mohana is at her best when she tells them about stars and planets, their features and behaviour and how impossible it is for them to affect human lives, say her students.
The teacher mainly addresses students aged between 8 and 12 because she thinks they are the most impressionable. “When I asked a crowd of villagers once who created man, they said God, but when children are asked the same question, they say parents. This shows that children are closer to reality. I don’t tell them their elders are wrong, but I just encourage them to question these beliefs. Their confused faces are enough for me,” said the teacher, who hails from Solampettai in Mayilathudurai.
A few years, ago, the zoology teacher was diagnosed with breast cancer, but has recovered after several chemotherapy sessions. After she retired, she became a full-time activist, visiting and camping in each village for at least a week.
Her favourite exercise is debunking the popular myth that one should not cook during eclipses. “I cook sakkarai pongal in villages, and serve it to the villagers. This way, they will remember they ate some tasty on a ‘forbidden day’ and nothing happened to them.”
Mohana said she has always found it difficult to address the practice of rituals such as kavadi. “Piercing of body parts and inflicting pain on yourself is considered a part of the belief system. Children are often awestruck by these performances. I have tried to tell them that such actions can be easily explained through the principles of physics or chemistry but have been often asked to leave the village by the elders.”
“People don’t accept me easily. I don’t believe in god, but I don’t preach disbelief. That will only make people see everything I say with contempt and disbelief,” she added.
“I don’t tell them their elders are wrong, but I just encourage them to question these beliefs’’